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December Solstice Traditions and Customs

The December solstice has influenced the lives of many people over the centuries, particularly through art, literature, mythology and religion. The December solstice is also known as the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere.

In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice occurs during the coldest season of the year.   Although winter was regarded as the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the coming of lighter days after the winter solstice brought on a more festive mood.  Throughout history winter has been regarded as the season of hibernation, stillness, melancholy, famine, dormancy, darkness and cold.  To many people, this return of the light is a reason to celebrate that nature’s cycle continues and that lighter days will bring optimism, energy and hope.

A Celtic tradition is the story of the Holly and Oak Kings. At the winter solstice the Oak King wins and rules the earth until the Holly King returns at the summer solstice and regains the throne where he once again rules. It is an age old battle of duality where one can not exist with out the other.

The Oak King and the Holly King

From a seasonal point of view, winter is a time when nature sleeps. Our ancestors, who were closely tied to nature and depended on her bounties in order to survive the harsh elements of winter, looked at the winter solstice as a turning point in the seasonal cycle of the earth. The return of longer days was seen as a rebirth of life in nature and so the winter solstice was celebrated to welcome the return of the sun and as a sign of hope.

The winter solstice, and the acknowledgement of the dark, has influenced the lives of many people over the centuries, particularly through art, literature, mythology and religion to participate in rituals that are focused on a celebration of life and the return of light. Winter solstice — light vs darkness, cold vs warmth, abundance vs shortage, life vs death! The process slow, patient! A transition from oblivion to prosperity, we are invited to turn within. We seek our inner light for survival. We sleep more, hibernate, huddle, slow our actions and wait.

Shakespeare said, “Darkness has its uses.” This seems appropriate as the winter constellations light up the evening sky to inspire our minds and make up for the loss of daylight. Each day representing the journey into darkness and every waking, an increase of light.

This time is also powerful for meditation, healing and for turning our vision silently inward. It is a profound time for listening deeply to desires that emanate from the core of our being.

May all of us find the courage and trust to embrace the darkness, connect with the light within and find our way.

Solstice’s influence on Christmas

December Solstice Customs

© Neish:  Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year.

In modern times Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, which falls on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.

Whether it is known as Dongzhi in China, Tekufat Tevet in Judaism, Yule in parts of Europe, Soyal among the Hopi and the Zuni, or Goru by the Dogon people of Mali, people have marked the longest night and shortest day as a point of tradition, ritual and ceremony moving toward a change of seasons.

Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.

Saturnalia in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome the winter (December) solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

Other Cultures and Modern Day Celebrations

In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody. In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer. Some churches celebrate St Thomas’ Day on other days in the year.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.

Earliest sunsets are not at winter solstice…

It’s this discrepancy between clock time and sun time that causes the earliest sunset and the earliest sunrise to precede the December solstice.

The discrepancy occurs primarily because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis. A secondary but another contributing factor to this discrepancy between clock noon and sun noon comes from the Earth’s elliptical – oblong – orbit around the sun. The Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle, and when we’re closest to the sun, our world moves fastest in orbit. Our closest point to the sun – or perihelion – comes in early January. So we are moving fastest in orbit around now, slightly faster than our average speed of 18 miles per second.

The precise date of the earliest sunset depends on your latitude. At mid northern latitudes, it comes in early December each year. At northern temperate latitudes farther north – such as in Canada and Alaska – the year’s earliest sunset comes around mid-December. Close to the Arctic Circle, the earliest sunset and the December solstice occur on or near the same day.

By the way, the latest sunrise doesn’t come on the solstice either. From mid-northern latitudes, the latest sunrise comes in early January.

The exact dates vary, but the sequence is always the same: earliest sunset in early December, shortest day on the solstice around December 21, latest sunrise in early January.

And so the cycle continues.

In the northern hemisphere worldwide, people have gathered since the dawn of time to mark the longest night and the shortest day on the winter solstice. Solstice is “derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).” The winter solstice will take place in the northern hemisphere next Saturday, Dec. 21 at 17:11 UTC.

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. Date 22 December 1985

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” ~ Og Mandino

We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.” ~ Henry David Thoreau